The Crooked Lake Review

June 2008

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Baseball Legend ‘Went to Bat’

for Erie Canal Horses and Mules


Richard Palmer

O. Robinson Casey, said to be the namesake of the famous baseball poem, “Casey at the Bat,” was working as a salesman at Keever’s General Store in Syracuse selling supplies to Erie Canal boatmen in the 1880s when he witnessed many acts of cruelty perpetrated on the animals that pulled the boats.

In those days, in spite of machinery, humans were still largely dependent on draft animals for pulling canal boats, farming, and commerce, in spite of the fact they were ill treated and sometimes starved.

Horses and mules were relied upon to furnish power to plow fields and harvest crops. They also provided the motive power for fire engines and other vehicles ranging from ambulances and fire engines to stagecoaches.

Although these animals were vital to human survival and commerce, they were sorely abused, whipped, over-driven and generally mistreated. Newspapers dating back to that period frequently published accounts of this abuse in great detail. Editorials generated a public outcry which eventually led to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

And none other Casey, coincidentally immortalized in the famous poem, “Casey at the Bat,” was at the forefront in the movement to curb animal abuse. The story told how he and some other animal activists eventually formed the Central New York S.P.C.A. in 1883. It was incorporated on Jan. 12, 1891. Eventually, machinery replaced animal power to a great extent, and laws were established regarding animal abuse.

But the problem persisted right up to the time Casey died on March 27, 1936 at the age of 77. For 45 years he was superintendent of the S.P.C.A. locally. Shortly before he died he was investigating a report that some horses were being left out in the open fields in sub-zero temperatures at a farm near Baldwinsville. The matter was resolved, but Casey’s health began to deteriorate and he eventually died.

Baseball legend came from Canada

Born at Casey’s Point near Kingston, Ontario, “Bob” Casey,” as he was known to many, left home at the age of 17 to, as he put it, “make my way in the world.” Originally, baseball was his avocation, and he used to “play catch” with his friends in a sand lot on East Genesee Street.

One day, he and his friend, Harry Kennedy, were at Newell Park where the Syracuse team was scheduled to play. Kennedy learned that the home team was short a man and suggested that to Casey that he volunteer. He did so well that he was frequently invited to play with the Syracusans, and, before long, much to his surprise, he got an offer from the Detroit National League.

He played with Detroit as third baseman and start batsman until the late 1880’s, returning to Syracuse during the off-season and to work in the canal store. This he did until he became superintendent of the S.P.C.A., which at the time had its animal shelter on Walton Street.

According to contemporary accounts, he was the original “Casey at the Bat.” One day in 1885, the Detroit team was playing against Minneapolis. It was a hard-fought match, and Detroit lost when Casey struck out. Casey claimed this was the episode that inspired Ernest L. Thayer, a Philadelphia newspaperman, to write his classic poem. However, historians have said the author has no particular “Casey” in mind.

The poem itself is set in Mudville, which is said to have been an adaptation of Minneapolis.

A baseball team is losing during the last inning. They might win if they can last long enough to let their star player, “mighty Casey, “ at bat. He is beloved by the fans. Confident in his abilities that he doesn’t swing at the first two pitches, which are both strikes. The poem is oldtime baseball literature at its best, even capturing the excitement of the crowd, which has perpetuated it as a classic. The last verse sums it up:

“Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.”

The writer of his obituary termed him “An immortal, but nevertheless, shadowy and legendary figure of American Baseball history.” O. Robinson Casey, who was a 32nd Degree Mason, is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Syracuse. Baseball history has forgotten him, and no official references mention that he may have been the original “Casey at the Bat.”

© 2008, Richard Palmer
Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer
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